By Gil Fried, Professor/Chair Sport Management Department, University of New Haven
When we think about ADA seating areas, we often think about line of sight issues. The ADA mandates seating location at every price point in an arena or stadium. In recent years there has been significant litigation associated with ribbons, public address systems, and scoreboards and what needs to be communicated via those and other mediums to make sure everyone can enjoy the experience in the most inclusive manner possible.
One area that is often not examined is fan safety. All fans need to be protected. Some might think about it in terms of sitting at a baseball game and whether all seats, including accessible seating areas, are covered by netting. In terms of protective netting, the argument has been focused primarily on children who have been hit by foul balls. The image of young people being hit by screaming foul balls is singed into the consciousness of many sport fans. Not as “popular” in the media are pictures and stories of older people who have been hit by foul balls. This includes the 79-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers fan who was hit by a foul ball in 2018 and later passed away. Even less coverage is given to disabled fans. Someone who is mobility impaired might not be able to avoid contact with a foul ball coming at them. The author remembers attending a hockey game several years ago and saw someone in a wheelchair hit in the chest by a hockey puck. The fan had no way to move or avoid the puck. Protecting handicapped patrons from foul balls and hockey pucks is just one issue. There are also other potential concerns associated with handicapped fans, ranging from fights around them, acts of mascots and hawkers, and when fans are placed in a potentially dangerous area.
One matter I had several years ago entailed a group of concerned parents who hired me to argue in front of a school board for changing part of a recently renovated stadium. The school in Massachusetts had undergone a major renovation and added elements to the stadium that connected it to a school building and expanded the historic stadium’s footprint. Since the facility’s renovations needed to comply with the ADA the school decided to pour some cement on the field’s sidelines and make it an area where those in wheelchairs could be accommodated. The three-foot-wide strip ran for around 80 yards and was around 10 feet from the football sidelines.
The problems were severalfold. The designated area was close to football action and those in wheelchairs might have been immobile. Furthermore, there was no good location for companion seating as required by the ADA. Finally, the field was also used for soccer, and when soccer was played, the cement was very close to the soccer sideline (less than two feet away). During one soccer game a kid was tackled out of bounds and hit the cement. Luckily, he was not seriously injured, but that was the final straw for the parents.
I attended the school board meeting and raised the issues concerning the cement strip since the school board had not formally responded to the parents’ concerns. Only after I had threatened to sue on behalf of the parents did the school board decided to explore other options. The school board ended up removing the cement area and moving the ADA seating strip to a spot in the new construction area that provided more room and less potential harm. This would still not accommodate all ADA concerns, but at least it resolved the parents’ safety concerns.
This matter came to mind when I saw the recent Kansas-Kansas State men’s basketball game where a fight broke out in the waning seconds of the game. “It happened in the handicap seating,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said. This raised a lot of concern for me when this might have been the only area for disabled fans to sit. In fact, the Kansas University athletics website has a disability information page and it specifically mentions that: “Wheelchair accessible seating is available on the floor level at the north and south ends of Allen Fieldhouse.”
I was wondering how many disabled fans were seated there, how much room was there between seats/wheelchairs, what warnings were given, did players know, could another location be found for concerned fans, was there a warning on tickets, did ushers know what to do, etc…? I do not know if the facility managers and security personnel have trained for an incident in that spot, but now that the incident has happened it has put all other schools on notice that this is a concern that needs to be addressed. I would also encourage disabled fans to speak out and raise any concerns they might have concerning their seating area. Able-bodied individuals might not understand or appreciate some of the risks disabled patrons might face (possibly due to the line of sight those in wheelchairs might have). It should also be examined in light of numerous other disabilities as wheelchair using patrons represent only a small sliver of the total number of disabled patrons going to facilities. Another area of concern that should be considered is service animals. What if there were service animals at the end of the court? What could happen to them or players if the fight spilled over? Imagine a dog being stepped on and getting hurt or a dog biting a player.
The Kansas example helps show why it is so important to pay attention to the little details. Facility administrators might have felt placing disabled fans in that location integrated them in the fan experience. But now safety should be explored at KU and all other facilities where fans might be close to the action or possibly in harms way.